Tag Archives: Caste

Marriage Politics

Nepal, like many parts of South Asia, still has a lot of “arranged marriages,” even in the cities– although it seems to me that arranged marriages are more like a “matchmaking” service these days, rather than a situation where the bride and groom didn’t know each other much or at all prior to the wedding like in generations past.

Today parents will introduce their adult children to each other and arrange a few meetings (or perhaps the couple will start dating) and after sometime the children can decide whether or not they want to marry. Sometimes there are professional “matchmakers” involved who come to your house with a folder of headshots and resumes to start the process, and now, of course, there are actual matchmaking websites like South Asian versions of eHarmoney.com. Parents even sometimes find potential matches for their children through ads online or in newspapers, etc. If P and I hadn’t gotten together, it is entirely possible he could have gone down this path. Who knows? Maybe his brother will.

The flip side of arranged marriages are what are referred to as “love marriages,” or marriages that are more like the marriages you find in the US… people meet each other on their own, form a relationship, and eventually decide to get married. Love marriages are becoming more and more frequent throughout South Asia, although they are not a new thing entirely. There were love marriages in previous generations, but they were much more rare (“Frank Uncle”).

The danger of love marriage is that, gasp, it is possible to fall in love with someone from outside your community! In the South Asian context (Nepal specifically) your “community” could mean several things including your religion, your “caste,” your ethnic group, even your economic peers. The one that I find really fascinating is caste.

For readers unfamiliar with caste (although I am sure most of you know more that I), Wikipedia defines it as: “a combined social system of occupation, endogamy, culture, social class, and political power. Caste should not be confused with class, in that members of a caste are deemed to be alike in function or culture, whereas not all members of a defined class may be so alike.” It’s a complicated concept, so I’m going to leave the definition there.

But anyway, there are several “castes” in Nepal as well as ethnic groups that are kind of slotted into the caste system. For example there are the Brahmins and Chetris (castes that are also in India), but also Newars, Gurungs, Rais, Sherpas, etc (Nepali ethnic groups) that are (in my somewhat limited understanding) somehow slotted into the overall hierarchy of caste or are sometimes treated as a caste (someone feel free to jump in and correct me if I have this wrong). Even within a specific caste or ethnic group there are hierarchies and different cultural traditions, etc.

One place where this comes into play is marriage. In an arranged marriage, one often limits one’s choices to people specifically within your caste/ethnic group and even your specific designation within this grouping. Some ethnic groups, because of the type of relations between them, are able to intermarry without too much trouble… for instance Sunwars and Rais who traditionally inhabit the same rural hilly region of Nepal, while some groups are very strict, like different types of Brahmin groups, who have fairly limited traditional marriage options (population wise).

Anyway, it still amazes me when I hear of Nepali families… in the year 2010, who are upset when their children fall in love with other Nepalis who come from different castes, or, better yet, they are from the same caste but different designation within that caste. At this point I want to shake their parents and say, “at least your child is still with a Nepali!” especially if their child has been living abroad for many years. One friend’s father didn’t talk to her for about a year when he found out she wanted to marry a Nepali man from another caste. She is Chetri and he is Brahmin. Things are slowly getting better for them now, but for a while it was pretty dicey in terms of family cohesiveness.

So now you can see why I feel pretty lucky when I say that P’s family was relatively “cool” with the intercultural relationship thing, because not only do I not really fit into the caste system, I’m from an entirely different religion, ethnic group, culture, language, etc, but I’m still accepted by the immediate family (the extended family doesn’t really know who I am yet, but more about that another time). It is really very awesome, even if I do run into misunderstandings from time to time (Please… No More Rice!) ;)

I’ve mentioned before that P’s dad is very liberal and forward thinking… well, one reason that he was probably so easily able to adjust to the idea of an intercultural relationship was probably because he had, gasp, an intercaste love marriage himself! (cue dramatic music… dut dut daaaa!)